‘Westward Ho! Let us rise with the sun, and be off to the land of the west - to the lakes and streams - the grassy glens and fern-clad gorges - the bluff hills and rugged mountains - now cloud-capped, then revealed in azure, or bronzed by evening’s tints, as the light of day sinks into the bold swell of the Atlantic….’ So begins Sir William Wilde’s famous Lough Corrib - Its Shores and Islands (published 1867 ), adorned with wonderful woodcuts, as he calls us all to join him as if in a bi-plane, to swoop and dive over its 200km of clear water, fed from rushing streams off the Connemara mountains, giving life to its foreshore and islands where people have lived since the dawn of time, fishing its shallows and its dark deeps; and where monks sought an earthly haven for prayer and solitude.
But its not on a bi-plane that Wilde leaves Dublin, and all his cares behind. But into a steaming and whistling locomotive puffing out from Broadstone station with its fearsome clattering and energy, into which he had piled his wife Jane and three children, their servants and maids, and as much baggage as they will need for the long summer holidays. They steamed across Ireland, noting every stop and ancient stone along the way, until eventually, with Dickensian excitement, they arrive at Galway, where they ‘emerge among the beggars into Eyre Square, surrounded by hotels, club-houses, banks, private residences, and coach offices’. Jumping into a Bianconi coach (which averaged a satisfactory eight miles per hour ), the family familiarise themselves yet again with the sights and sounds of the ancient City of the Tribes, and pass ‘by the handsome groups of blue-eyed, black-haired, bare-footed colleens with their graceful carriage, red petticoats, and blue and scarlet cloaks’. Fishermen stand holding out baskets with ‘shrimps jumping…where cockles are smacking their lips with the heat, where johndories are alive, and the lobsters are playing pitch and putt with the crabs…’ before they breathlessly arrive at Woodquay, and take the Eglinton steamer to his holiday home, Moytura Lodge, just outside the village of Cong, on the lake’s northern shore.
As the lake unfolds before them, Sir William begins his fascinating and entertaining account of all that he can survey, his vast knowledge of old Ireland I’m sure was listened to in silence and awe.
At that time, however, research into our ancient past was in its infancy. Despite Wilde’s academic and scholarly approach, which he had displayed with bravura energy at the National Museum, where he was acknowledged as one of Ireland’s foremost authorities in antiquarian research, 60 years later some of his knowledge was all to be questioned. Colm Ó Lochlainn, printer, publisher and Gaelic scholar,* decided to reprint Wilde’s best selling history of Lough Corrib, but to ‘reform’ Wilde’s ’spelling and elucidation’ of place names.
Ó Lochlainn’s bugbear was John O’Donovan, who was recruited in the 1830s by the ordnance survey, to explain in English Irish place names to be marked on maps. For seven years poor O’Donovan travelled, in all weathers, often on foot, asking about local pronunciation of names, geographic features and folklore. He was widely admired academically, but caused fury among those who disagreed with his pronouncements. Among them was Colm Ó Lochlainn.
A corrected Lough?
In 1936 Ó Lochlainn, using the same woodcuts, republished Wilde’s Loch Coirib (note spelling of ‘Loch Coirib’ ). In his stimulating preface, he agrees that in a book which holds so much of sound history and archaeology, ‘we must permit the good author to indulge in occasional flights of fancy.’ But Ó Lochlainn confesses that it is doubtful ‘if we can ever undo the mischief wrought by the name-coiners of that O’Donovan’s survey….’
He writes: ‘It is a matter of profound regret that O’ Donovan agreed - if he ever did so - to the mutilation of our place-names by the map-makers of the survey… ‘Why, for example, must we be content with Illaunageerach, while our Scottish brothers have Eilean nan Coarach? ‘Why have all our lakes become Lough, while in Scotland they remain Loch…Why have our mountains become Bens, and even Pins, while Beann Dorain still proudly wears its name in proper Gaelic form? ‘So I have written Loch Coirib - which approximately represents the modern Irish for Loch Oirbsen, and so I write Cunga or Cunga Feichín for Cong.’
Both books are eminently collector’s items.**
NOTES: * Colm Ó Lochlainn, founder of The Three Candles press (each candle representing Truth, Nature, and Knowledge ), in 1926, producing meticulously fine letterpress printing, also produced a number of books, notably Irish Street Ballads (1939 ) and More Irish Street Ballads (1965 ), which, as a noted musician and singer, he had collected himself. His eldest son, Dara Ó Lochlainn, was a renowned Jazz musician and graphic designer. He adopted his father’s much admired Colmcille typeface to design the Galway Advertiser logo (1970 ).
** Where to find original editions? Try Norman Healy, Salthill, Galway, at Healy Rare Books, www.healyrarebooks.com, or Ulysses Rare Books, Dublin.